(Jonathan Demme, USA, 1980)
Jonathan Demme, whose 20+ year long career is hopefully far from over, has never quite attained the American Cinema Hero status of the Scorsese-Coppola caliber, but he's well known for his handful of smart, idiosyncratic films, of which Melvin and Howard is an example par excellence. Demme is frequently praised for his eclecticism, which praise can be seen as subtly backhanded; if there's one thing you don't want to be as a film director in the age of the Auteur, it is eclectic. Not to delve into that kettle of fish, but the Theory has its faults as well as its virtues, and it's entirely possible that Demme, through no greater vice than following his own particularly fickle muse, has been given short shrift by the critical consensus (such as it is.) In any case, Melvin and Howard is a fine film indeed.
Probably the most remarkable formal aspect of M&H is its loose, episodic nature. I wasn't initially aware of the true story that is the film's basis, but once learning this, it made Demme's pseudo-doc approach all the more admirable. Demme wisely eschews the the expedience we're accustomed to in much narrative storytelling, and the result is something of a ramble, even a picaresque, and the details that emerge along the way, take on the gem-like quality of effortlessly constructed authenticity. The scenes involving Melvin and his family, while brief, are acutely observed, slice-of-life stuff that doesn't feel precious or forced. There are some mightily satisfying set pieces - the game show and the impromptu concert are particularly lovely in their plainly weird Americana.
This isn't a movie of wildness and mania; those films, for Demme, would come later. Here, things are quirky, not really crazy, and there's an admiration for the kind of perennial fuck-ups that America seems particularly good at producing. Melvin is one, but so is Howard, in his own way; perhaps Demme's most insightful stroke is to suggest that at the end of the day, the two titular characters are separated by much less than it might seem initially; it could be that only a bit of luck distinguishes the fuck-up from the American Hero. Certainly, they are both ambitious souls; Hughes Icarus-like aspirations are the stuff of modern legend, but Melvin is no less dogged in his pursuit of the dream, however hokey it might seem in comparison. But of the two models, Demme readily embraces the latter. Hughes, after all, wound up crazy and alone. Melvin, it is strongly suggested (even extra-textually, as the real Melvin appears in a bit role) gets the better result for his trouble. He might not be rich or even all that famous, but he has friends (and, perhaps more importantly, family), and he emerges with his own particularly skewed combination of ingenuity and pluck intact. All the same, there's an undercurrent of somberness that suffuses the film, grounding the quirks and mishaps with a sense of something lost. In their groping for the American dream, nobody in Melvin and Howard seems to know exactly what it is they're groping for.